Civility does the work of empathy.

 -Pier Massimo Forni
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Gracious reader,

Healthy workplaces begin with each of our individual decisions about how we'll act.  Every darn day.

That said, there's a greater operating system at play, starting with the people who lead our organizations, and their intentions, priorities and leadership skills.

Executives always lead by example.  Behavior is contagious. 
Minnesota Nice
  • "They drew up a list of nine guidelines for civilized debate so simple they could and did fit on a wallet card. Then, a funny thing happened. People took the idea to heart. All six major units of regional government—city and county boards and school districts—adopted the guidelines. As debate improved, so did the process of addressing problems."  This is from a (paywalled) Wall Street Journal article that caught my eye:  "What Duluth Can Teach America About Declining Political Civility."

    The Duluth Superior Area Community Foundation's Speak Your Peace Civility Project developed a set of tools for a community that wanted to find ways to talk and listen to one another more deeply.  There's more on Duluth's ongoing project here and here.

    Unless you're the CEO, you may not have the power to inspire your organization to do the work required to bring people to agreement on shared principles for debate.  You do have the power to choose to act with your own values and principles in mind.

  • Duluth's project was based on concepts in Choosing Civility: the Twenty-Five Rules of Considerate Conduct by Pier Massimo Forni (library) (Indiebound

    I'm halfway through the book.  Recommend.  One note I made, "Empathy is a feeling, civility is a behavior."

    I've never known why I've been uncomfortable when clients tell me that they want employees to develop "empathy" or "emotional intelligence."  Until now. 

    Leaders can't change how people feel.

    Forni gets it, articulating that civility is comprised of actions, rather than feelings.  You can choose to be civil, even when you don't feel the love.  And he offers some good reasons to make this choice.

    To be clear, the recommendation to commit to civil behavior is not a recommendation to live with wrongs.  Civility is not about being "polite" when people behave horribly at work
  • (Aside:  if you or your loved ones are from Minnesota, you know that "Minnesota nice" isn't always about being nice.  Like "bless your heart" in the American South, it's coded.)
In a Manner of Speaking
  • In my opinion, manners are meant to inspire gatherings and interactions that optimize for everyone's comfort and inclusion.  This interpretation leaves out the way that etiquette can be used to exclude, marginalize, minimize, and control people. 

    That said, your acceptance of the business manners in your workplace will affect people's perception of your "fit," and potential for promotion.  If your manager isn't a good coach on this topic, seek support from another experienced co-worker who knows the ropes.

    If you'll be traveling for business to far off-lands, learn about table manners, appropriate business dress, and other basics before you go.  If nobody in your office clues you in, travel guides can be a good resource.
  • Your office dress code may be outlined in a policy manual, or it may be unspoken.  Either way, violating the code is risky.  You’re Going to Wear That?  Appearance in the Workplace by Harold M. Goldner is a good piece on dress codes, via GP Solo, an American Bar Association magazine. 
  • After talking with a family member who wanted to bring basic etiquette training to his son's scout troop, I found this video on American formal dining.  It's a good video.

    There's a WASPy subtext to the presentation, and on fitting in.  I'm going to say that this subtext is both a feature and a bug. 

    Yes, some people will make inferences from your behavior about your "upbringing" or other social/class signifiers, and use their conclusions to include or exclude you.  Knowledge is power.
From My Archives
We usually won't be able to change an organization.  If bad behavior has been allowed for any length of time, even the CEO might not be able to change things.

We can change our own perception of what should be allowed at work, and what should not be.  And when we're fortunate, we can change where we work, too.

While words like manners, etiquette and civility can carry heavy emotional baggage, there's no positive future in a world where they don't exist.  There's no solution in getting rid of manners. 

Accepting that manners exist* enables us put our attention on creating a shared understanding of what it means to be civil, and to do the work it takes to build strong relationships at work.


*I re-read The Age of Innocence (library) a few years ago. I remember thinking that "tech" is every bit as mannered as late-Victorian New York City society was.  Fight me.
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